Many languages associate the t sound with the second person and the s with the third. For example Spanish (tu/tuyo, su/suyo), French (tu,ton/ta/tes,son/sa/ses), Italian (tu,tuo/tua/tuoi,suo/sua/suoi) etc. Even English associates t with the second person (thy,thine etc). German does not seem to have t for the second person (though it has d which is close) but does have third person adjectives beginning with s (sein/seine).

Modern (and I would guess Ancient as well) Greek, however has the inverse. The second person is associated with the s sound and the third with t. Σου, pronounced su just like in Spanish means your(s) and του, again pronounced exactly like the Spanish tu, means his. I can imagine that του may have originated from the word for self (ἑαυτού/τον/τος) but, in that case, why the third person?

So, my question is about the history and origin of this association between s and t and the third and second person respectively. Is it a characteristic of Proto-Indo-European and, if so, what happened to Greek? Did PIE have such adjectives and, if so, did they also start with t and/or s? Any extra historical information on the origin and phylogeny of these possessives would also be very welcome.

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    A quick look ta the Wikipedia page on Proto-Indo-European pronouns indeed shows that the 2nd person singular pronoun was t-, but the story of the 3rd person seems more involved... – Frédéric Grosshans Sep 11 '13 at 10:45
  • @FrédéricGrosshans thanks for that link, very interesting. Apparently, Greek had σύ while Doric had τύ. – terdon Sep 11 '13 at 10:53

The second person singular pronoun in PIE was tua̯om (or tue̯om). This explains why many languages have t- in the first position in second-person pronoun.

There was no third-person personal pronoun in PIE. In such cases one could use either demonstrative (like "that") or reflexive (like "themself").

The reflexive pronoun su̯em in PIE was one for all persons (unlike English where you see "yourself", "himself") etc.

The demonstrative pronouns (like "that") were so for masculine, sea̯ for feminine and tod for neuter.

Looking at this you can see that both reflexive and the demonstratives could be the origin for s- in third person pronouns in descendant languages.

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  • That makes perfect sense, thanks. Especially since the neuter demonstrative pronoun in Greek is to (το). Any ideas on where the s- for the second person in Greek could have come from? Do you know of any other IE languages with that form? – terdon Sep 12 '13 at 1:17
  • PIE *tu- regularly became s- in Attic-Ionic Greek, hence the second-person forms in s-. Modern Greek του (τον, etc.) is from the Ancient Greek third-person pronoun αὐτοῦ (αὐτόν, etc.). – TKR Sep 12 '13 at 2:51
  • @TomRecht: Are you sure? In Ancient Greek, tou/ton/etc. could also be used as personal pronouns. I know little about New Greek. – Cerberus Sep 12 '13 at 3:03
  • @Cerberus: In Classical Greek those are forms of the definite article, not personal pronouns. It's true that they are used as personal pronouns in Homeric Greek, but since this usage had almost completely died out by Classical times it isn't plausible that it could be the origin of the modern forms. – TKR Sep 12 '13 at 3:11
  • @TomRecht: Not only in Homeric Greek, but, yes, you have a point that auton/etc. became standard in classical Attic-Ionic and probably also Koine at the expense of ton/etc. As I understand it, there were never personal pronouns of the 3rd person as separate from (substantive) demonstrative pronouns in (most? all?) proto-languages? Just as there was never a strict class of nouns as separate from adjectives until later. (And the lines are still blurred, of course, even in modern languages: der Bernd, der ist nicht da; une liaison traîtresse; the fallen have risen.) – Cerberus Sep 12 '13 at 3:25

The child at the breast makes lip sounds - m, m becoming n, n becoming a; and b becoming p; and p becoming f. Hence, we obtain mama, nana, baba, papa. The m/n/a set becomes the first person - me. Any other person is identified by the tooth sound d, d becoming t, t becoming s, s becoming h, h becoming a mere breath or then ceasing to exist. Hence, we obtain dada and tata. The d sound is felt to be too harsh to use of/to other persons, so it is initially softened to t and so kept for the third person - that one ( him/her//it); but even that is too harsh when speaking to another person, so the second person - thee - is softened to s. The t/ s/h series, being the non-me series, is , naturally, used as the tool for making pronouns and the definite article. (In Semitic languages, the d is kept in some, becoming dh, becoming zh, becoming z in others; but also with the series d/t/s/h.

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  • Thanks for your contribution! There's a couple of things I'd like to ask you to clarify if it's alright. "the d sound is felt to be too harsh" - Personally, I don't find it harsh. What is your evidence for harshness and how do you define it? "d is softened to t" - Usually a change t > d is described as softening or more correctly weakening because voiced plosives involve less acoustic energy than voiceless plosives. – robert Sep 13 '13 at 8:37
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    This answer is worthless. The first section is a just-so story. Many people have argued it, and it's plausible, but it's unproved and unproveable. That "the d sound is felt to be too harsh to use of/to other persons" is complete nonsense. /t/ -> /s/ and /s/ -> /h/ (and /h/ -> nothing) are developments which have certainly occurred in a number of different languages, but there is nothing universal about them. – Colin Fine Sep 14 '13 at 17:58

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